Tu Ha An - Dreamlike & Multicultural Illustration

Designing cover for "A Book about Minimalism", or a story of luck

Edited by my beloved friend K.L

May 2021, one dream project knocked on my door. Chi Nguyen, The Present Writer’s founder, the author I’ve admired for years, offered me the opportunity to illustrate the cover of the third edition of her book: A Book about Minimalism.

May 2021, I was planning to find a way to leave my full-time job in railway safety. While doing so, I felt uncomfortable every time someone asked me what I did for a living and had a hard time convincing people around me to take my choice seriously. I was literally a “nobody” in the illustration world: no degree, no prestigious award, not even a decent experience to put on the resume… And despite all this, I was chosen to design the cover of a best-seller, the very first book in Vietnamese about minimalism.

I planned to start this article with the quote:

Hustle until your idols become your partners / peers / rivals…

But I felt it sounded somehow arrogant and… not quite right. And it wasn’t because I didn’t work hard. On the contrary, I know that I’ve always been serious, hard-working, persistent, willing to learn … well, like most people who chase after their dream.

Still, in all honestly, this story is a story of luck.

Let me tell you the story behind the cover of A Book about Minimalism, through the creative journey and conversation with Chi Nguyen, the author.

A story of luck

The timing, and the connection

Tu Ha An (An): On your social networks, you said that the re-edition of A Book about Minimalism was being run independently, without going through a books retailers. How can you trust someone you’ve never worked with, like me? 

Chi Nguyen (Chi): I realized that I needed help to get to the finish line of the re-editing process. I could have paid someone to execute my idea, or I could have designed the cover by myself, but I knew from the get-go that the result would not be professional enough, and it would not fully reflect my values. That’s why I decided to look for collaborators for this re-edition. One of the first conditions was that the person should already read the book and already knew The Present Writer. And I thought of you right away, because shortly before, you just gifted me an illustration of my little family. 

This went back to about a year ago when I saw on one Instagram story post that Chi wanted to have a portrait drawn in her own book, like the author of the book she was reading. Back then I couldn’t help but imagining how this portrait would turn out if it was me who draws it. This idea lingered in my head for so long that I decided to make an illustration of Chi, in her world, surrounded by the elements extracted from her book or her blog. Then I sent it to Chi, hoping nothing more than the illustration would bring her a touch of peacefulness and warmth for a new day.

Her email response filled with emotions was the reaction any artist would dream to receive.

The illustration made a year ago

Needless to say, I was delighted and felt confident thanks to her sweet feedbacks. But never in imagination that a few weeks later, Chi would go as far as asking me to design the cover for the new edition of her book, which she did.

An: Just by looking at your popularity, I am certainly not the only one who was touched by your content nor the first one who offered you a drawing. I’m pretty sure that you are only one announcement post away to get a lot of interesting offers. But since you chose me, I really promised myself to cherish this opportunity.

Chi: Actually, me too, just by looking at the elements present in your illustration, I know that you followed my contents, and that you had a real affection for my family. I think that if a person appreciates my content to the point of offering me such a beautiful piece of work for free then the day I can afford to pay them, they would be even more able to make the best out of the opportunity. They will not only work for the money but more importantly for the values I would like to share to the community.

I have always believed that the core foundation and the motivation of a person are more important than their experiences.

One luck, one challenge

The proposal from Chi was clearly a dream for me. Yet, it is far from being a match easily won. I love the old cover. The first time I held the first edition in my hand, I already thought that it was such smart, elegant, efficient, perfect design. Many readers had fallen in love with A Book about Minimalism because of that cover. When Chi was talking about the re-edition of the book during her appearance on the Three Points (Ba chấm) podcast, even the host couldn’t hide his disappointment when he learned that the old cover would not be able to appear on this third edition. I must admit that if I wasn’t the illustrator for the new cover, I would be as just disappointed as he was.

But I am indeed the illustrator for the new cover … which left me stressed like hell.

Chi wants to change into a new cover to better reflect her new perception about Minimalism, that she names the “holistic minimalism” while holding onto its former simple style with a touch reminiscent of the old version that the audience is already familiar with. 

I could imagine a handful of other illustrators ready to dive right into this assignment if they were in my place. Instead, I spent a whole day … just to calm down my breath, despite my excitement for this great challenge, no…, because of my excitement for this challenge. I loved this mission so much, I was so grateful that I couldn’t afford to disappoint Chi.

Respect the luck

Big opportunity means … big fear

Have you ever been so motivated while being presented with a dream project, and then … you just keep procrastinating for fear of not being up to it? That was the story of my life throughout school and college!

Though this time, I didn’t want to miss the chance. Worse, I didn’t even have time to procrastinate, since I had a full-time job at the same time that was sucking up not only my time, but also my energy and my brain power.

The goal back then was not to lock myself up for three months and come out with ONE ultimate solution at the end. I didn’t think that was what Chi would expect from a collaboration either.

I was aware that the first option was not intended to be perfect nor to gauge an immediate admiration from the client, especially when the first option was always presented as a sketch version.

But having been on the client side when I worked with illustrators for railway safety awareness campaigns, I have also come to know the gap between the artist and the client. Time was always too tight to present a clean, detailed version as a final product. (Although in my case, I live in France, and Chi in the US, which gave me an extra 6 hours for each deadline to which I’m always deeply grateful.) Anyway, getting too much into details is a waste of time, the proposed draft is supposed to evolve following the exchanges with the client.

On the hand however, the client cannot know what was happening inside the illustrator’s head neither. When they look at a sketch, there is no guarantee that they will see the final product the same way the illustrator does.

Chi: One of the things I like when I work with An is that you don’t just send me sketches but also always explained the content and the idea. It shows that you have your own interpretations and it helped me to better understand the concept behind each detail that you draw.

First sketch and explanations to put our visualization of the final product on the same line

The time I wasn’t myself

An: Did you perceive any negative things during our collaboration?

Chi: I think there was nothing negative. Maybe just some difficulties at the very beginning, when we had to define the style that fit us. At the beginning, when you drew the girl with a slim silhouette, I thought it was too stylish compared to my style. But you changed it right away following my remark.

Indeed, I was basing on the old cover to build this first sketch for the new cover. The drawing of the girl on the old version was quite commonly seen. I thought that a minimalist like Chi would certainly prefer such a generic style. That’s why I modified my own style, which was more into cuteness, to draw a girl up to all society standards.

The sketch of the skinny girl who fits perfectly into the social norm

The result? You already knew what happened…

I was surprised but also happy because Chi preferred my REAL style!

These feedbacks untied a knot in my mind. Chi’s approach to minimalism had played an indirect role in my choice of illustration style. Through her articles, I learned that minimalism is more than just a simple living room with just one shade of color. However, I made the same mistake assuming that a minimalist would certainly prefer a conventional style.

Chi chose me because of my cute chubby characters. It was unreasonable for me to change my style assuming that she would appreciate it more!

The luck to learn, from both sides

This experience helped me to completely shut down the voice of the impostor in my head. I dared to offer my entire creativity. The rest of the collaboration went like clockwork.

After 55 emails back and forth, I realized, and this may sound weird, that I love receiving feedbacks from clients.

Chi: I think it’s easier to work directly with the illustrator than to go through a third party. In the past, because of my lack of experience, only the materialization of my idea already made me happy, all was good, there was no need to go further.

During our collaboration, you offered me several options, and when I wanted to test a new approach, you were always willing to try. This made me realize that there is not only one direction but many awaiting to be explored.

Our collaboration also made me become more mature. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself, but I wasn’t demanding enough when it came to others. Before, I didn’t dare give remarks on the small details because I didn’t like the idea of annoying others over small matters. But after working with you, I realize that maybe these details are very easy to change and that maybe the people who work with me appreciate receiving feedback as well. Since we were already working together, people would already know who I am and how I am, there is no need to be too conscious on how I could be judged by others anymore.

From the first idea to the last choice
A part of the tests made during the project

When luck becomes reality

The story the cover wants to tell

If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no!

Derek Sivers

During months, we built and refined ideas, and each exchange was a moment of decision we decided to choose which elements to let go and which ones to be developed, in order to reach a “Hell yes” result, which is achieved in December 2021.

A Book about Minimalism, third edition

An: Did you have a plan that the girl on the cover would be a representation of yourself? Honestly, when I first read your book, I didn’t think that girl was you. That’s why I didn’t have your image in mind when I made the first sketch. That’s why I was surprised when referred to yourself when talking with me about the girl on the cover.

Chi: For those who didn’t know, the idea for the illustration on the first cover was drawn by myself.

The first cover and the Chi’ sketch (source: www.thepresentwriter.com)

Back then it was an image of a girl and a cat. The cat was definitely my cat Friday. When I got to the end of the writing process, Friday passed away. I wanted to make a tribute to him, as the one and only who walked through a lonely path of studies and works with me at the beginning of The Present Writer, from 2016 to 2018. It was always just the two of us.

Chi and Friday the cat (source: www.thepresentwriter.com)

About the girl, whether she was me or not … at that time, I wanted to have a female figure for the cover, but I didn’t really want her to be explicitly me. I would prefer her to have some sorts of connections with the readers. At one time, I came across a review written by Giang Ơi. She was very sentimental, saying that when she first got the book, she only knew little about minimalism, but seeing the girl and cat on the cover, she felt like recognizing herself with her cat. I think that connection was really important.

You could also see that the girl on the old version had a bun which isn’t my usual style. Or she was putting her foot on the coffee table which was pointed by my father to me as not very Hanoian way a girl would be expected to behave. But at that time, I thought that this girl was not necessarily “me”.

I guess my desire for this girl to be me came from you. The idea behind the shadow was very interesting. It makes me feel more confident.

The inspiration for this new cover came from the idea of reflecting on Chi’s experiences after 5 years of practicing minimalism. The point of focus on the cover gives the impression that the reader is observing the characters from a distance, as if he or she is taking few steps behind to better observe the character in the book. This way of viewing is also the appropriate approach to Chi’s journey, and to the book itself, by taking a few steps and looking back.

The design of the book’s first cover

The armchair and the girl turn to the right, the side that symbolizes the future in the visual language, while the shadow is projected on the left, the side that represents the past, the memories. But above all, the image of a girl reading a book while drinking tea, accompanied by the cat, under the light coming from behind, which forms a perfect representation of the present moment.

Chi: I think can finally say with confidence that this version of the book is truly “me”. My personal style is present not only in the writing, but also in the design and in all the production steps. The closer the release date is, the more I feel like that girl is me.

The full inking version of the illustration on the cover and its colored version

Personal style is present even in the details. On the cover, Chi’s handwriting was used to write the name The Present Writer. This, and also A Book About Minimalism, were conceived from the handwritten pages in the morning journal, a routine Chi has undertaken for years.

The drawing of the ficus lyrata on the back cover refers to the plant that was often featured in Chi’s daily life photos. Last year, when we were in the middle of the re-editing project, Chi had to move to a new state for her new job. As a result, she had to part ways with her ficus lyrata. While minimalism allowed for a serene goodbye to possessions, I wanted to keep track of this plant that accompanied Chi through several phases of her life. Like Friday (and another very important person in Chi’s life who won’t be disclosed here), the ficus lyrata will remain forever in this book.

The ficus lyrata in Chi’s daily life photos, the ficus lyrata on the fourth cover, and the farewell moment with the ficus lyrata (source: The Present Writer Instagram and YouTube)

The unexpected and the patience

You have probably noticed that the preparation for this re-edition lasted longer than expected.

Chi: In January 2021, when the book’s stock started to sell out in retail bookstores, I contacted the books retailers to arrange the re-edition. However, because of the sanitary crisis and few other reasons, the books retailers publisher would no longer focus on the re-edition. My former collaborators encouraged me to do it independently, since my contract was going to end in August 2021. My former editor advised me to start at the beginning of the year to get the book out in August. At the time, I thought I had plenty of time left. I even thought about launching the audio version as well as the English version for August.

But in reality, during this period, there were a lot of changes in my life, including my job and relocation. This process took me months, during which the book was no longer the priority.

What I am most grateful for when working with you is your stability. You always supported me, even when I coudln’t get back to you for a month, when I was too busy or because I needed more time to consider my choices. We live in such a developed society and a fast-paced content creation industry and yet you never rushed me. You just asked me if I had any ideas or if I wanted to test new solutions. What I like most about our collaboration is your understanding and stability.

An: Being part of your , I know how important the book is to you. Your book is full of emotions, it is only natural that you as the author are the one who knows what is best for the book. If you need the time to reflect, then I think it’s better to take the time. It would be a bad strategy to go fast at any price, only to feel unsatisfied when you look back later on.

Chi: During the re-edition, I felt guilty many times for postponing the release date at multiple occasions. The August release fell through, then the October release, then December, until March 2022. I felt sorry towards you, because I left you waiting all this time. Did you feel bad about the wait? Did you ever think, “Why is Chi doing ignoring my email? Does she feel unhappy my work?” Were you worried about such kind of things while working with me?

An: Truth is … Not at all. I think there are 3 reasons for this:

First of all, I’ve been following you for a long time. With the version of “Chi” that I know from your blog posts, I’m pretty sure that if you’re slow to respond, there must be a reason behind it.

Secondly, in the illustration business, it happens that clients are late, even if it’s not that common. I was a client, too. Often, it’s not because clients don’t want to give feedback, but they had to ask for validation and bureaucracy isn’t a light matter. Many things can slow down a decision making process, they just didn’t let me know because their business issues didn’t concern me. Having worked in safety, I always prefer certainty over speed.

Third, thanks to your blog and the book The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz, I have learned to focus only on things I can control, other than that, I don’t make assumptions. If I need an explanation, I will ask for it. If I feel that the explanation does not directly impact the quality of my work, I don’t think it’s necessary to go further. 

Luck respects those who respect it.

Luck respects those who respect it.

NAVO – Bruno Muschio

The surprise

An: Were there things that surprised you when you worked with me?

Chi: After months of working together, I was surprised to learn that you were not a full-time illustrator, and that you did not have a background in art, but in engineering. Though that would explain why I enjoy working with you. I’m a researcher myself and I create content on the side. That’s why I like the stability and logic behind your creations and your process. I was surprised, because your professionalism and response time are both at the level of a full-time illustrator. I later learned that this project was one of your first client projects. But in retrospect, I think it’s a non-shocking surprise. In fact, I think it’s your experience in both fields that gives you an advantage. Your engineering background fits well with my identity as a researcher and content creator in parallel. 

Life after luck

This story has an exceptionally happy ending!

A lot of things changed since I started the project. I quit my former job, started a full-time illustration business, still learning how to build a stable business, started a blog, and most importantly … I officially joined The Present Writer team!

An: In retrospect, the cover design for A Book About Minimalism was like a key that opened a new chapter in my life. It may have been a series of coincidences, but this project will remain an important milestone.

Chi: There is one thing that I shared only once with Trí Lê Cao, CEO of Baola and Vibeji. I have this ability to discover talented people. Every time I introduce them to The Present Writer community, that person would often make much more impressive progress than me. And I’m happy about that. But of course, the people that I ended up finding are always those who have potentials, morale, and want to bring value to the society. Some people contacted me to promote their products or to seek to make a name for themselves. For me, none of that is essential. Who you are as a person is much more valuable than all of that.

Spring 2022, the dream project is finally over.

I don’t mind saying that I was exceptionally lucky to be part of this project. But I’m also proud that I worked hard long before so I could be ready whenever the luck comes my way. And I’m proud that I respected the luck.

As I write this, I haven’t seen the print version of the cover yet. Yes, I have no idea what my creation will look like when it gets printed.

The old cover in my hand while the new one is held by the hand of a mockup model 🙂

If you live in Vietnam, there is a good possibility that you will have the cover in your hands before me. If that would be the case, then I would love to read your feelings about it.

Keep creating!

Tu Ha An

*Please consult the information on Copyright & Intellectual Property before copying or mentioning the content and images of tuhaan.com

Post A Comment